Picking the best of the West

Originally published in Reel West Magazine‘s 30th anniversary issue:

Choosing the best TV show to come out of Western Canada in the last 30 years is almost as hard as figuring out whether Nick or Relic was my favourite beachcomber. I loved them for such different and opposing reasons.

And that is the obvious nostalgia winner, if I’m going to make a choice: I spent more time with The Beachcombers as a kid than I did with most of my extended family. Though it was not the Canada I knew as a land-locked Edmontonian, I recognized how unusual it was to see my own country represented onscreen in something other than a Hinterland Who’s Who segment. The Beachcombers aired for about 567 years, give or take, but I haven’t seen it in decades, meaning it might not hold up as truly the best choice.

There’s the “everyone else loved it” choice in Corner Gas. Hugely popular, hugely influential, it just wasn’t my cup of joe. Canadian networks are still trying to replicate its success. A movie was enthusiastically crowdfunded and attracted a huge audience. The show is worthy to be someone’s choice for best of the west – just not mine. Call me a jackass if you will, Oscar.

My “think outside CanCon” choice would be The X-Files, The Vancouver Years. I ignored the first couple of seasons thinking it was a reality show (seriously), then binge-watched it before binge-watching was cool … and had the nightmares to show for it. I bailed when the later seasons disintegrated into a pile of convoluted conspiracy, but the mostly-monster-of-the-week seasons remain a favourite today. Except “Home.” I don’t need those kind of nightmares again.

APTN’s Blackstone would be my socially conscious choice. It’s The Wire of Canada, equally relegated to a cult audience – which in Canada means a cult of a cult audience — and equally willing to delve into complex socio-political issues surrounding a community. It’s not as ponderous as that sentence made it sound, but it’s not light viewing either, and I find myself needing to be in the right frame of mind to settle in with a season. So picking it as the best of the lot would also be the pretentious, hypocritical choice.

A modern family-friendly choice would be the long-running Sunday stalwart Heartland, but while it reminds me of my younger days of obsessing over Anne of Green Gables and slightly less young days of looking in on Road to Avonlea for the Lucy Maud Montgomery completism, I’m not family-friendly enough as an adult to really enjoy it.

And then there’s the right choice: SCTV. I can hear you now – does that really qualify as a Western Canadian show, when most seasons were produced in Ontario? As a born and bred Edmontonian, where you can take an SCTV shooting location walking tour, I can definitively say yes. Just as Gretzky will always be ours, so too will SCTV. Argue with me and I’ll send Dave Semenko after you.

The series helped define Canada’s sketch comedy identity in ways that are obvious even today. Kids in the Hall, This Hour Has 22 Minutes, Rick Mercer, even this season’s Sunnyside – does anyone working in sketch comedy not owe a debt to the shenanigans of the SCTV gang? How can I, someone who runs a website on Canadian content called “TV, eh?”, not owe a debt to a series that gave us Bob and Doug and “eh?”, the mockery of Canadian content.

It helped define a sense of humour for at least a generation. My brother and I – not having a video recorder – would create our own radio station using a tape recorder and our best attempt to capture some of the SCTV spirit. Those tapes didn’t survive for long, but I don’t think the SCTV writers would have been quaking in their boots at the competition.

It made household names out of people who are still household names 30 years later. Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara are draw enough that CBC’s Schitt’s Creek premiered to 1.4 million viewers – a reflection of their star power that the series itself couldn’t hold on to. Andrea Martin came back to host the Canadian Screen Awards broadcast ceremony, forever Canadian to Canadians though she’s actually American by birth and citizenship. Martin Short, John Candy, Dave Thomas, Rick Moranis, Harold Ramis, Joe Flaherty – whether they were born here or not, this cast will always be our people.

And so many of the cast of this low-budget Canadian show became prominent figures in US entertainment – always a favoured trajectory for us approval-seeking Canucks. So when naming a best show of Western Canada – a fool’s errand – what better than a show that unites east and west, north and south, and irreverently tells us all to take off, eh?


7 thoughts on “Picking the best of the West”

  1. Beachcombers doesn’t hold up really well. I never watched it during its original run and when it appeared on APTN a couple years ago, I enthusiastically gave it a try but just couldn’t get into it.

    And Corner Gas, I agree with you 100%. I live in Saskatchewan, am a proud Saskatchewaner and love everything Saskatchewan, but I didn’t love Corner Gas. I kind of actually disliked it truthfully.

    I’m too young to have watched SCTV during its original run, but I have seen a few episodes over the years. I’ve never been hugely into sketch comedy though.

    Heartland is great, but it is too family friendly for me to call a favourite. It lacks lacks the meatiness of a more adult drama.

    North of 60 gets my vote for Best of the West and I was extremely disappointed to see it was left out of the Reel West article, especially considering a procedural like Motive, with only 35 episodes, and no evident lasting impact, made it on. Filmed in Alberta, North of 60 spanned 90 episodes plus 5 tv movies. It was watched in my family’s home every week and Tina Keeper and Tom Jackson were household names. People talked about the show in conversation, something not common for a Canadian tv show, now or ever. I rewatched all the episodes last year or the year before and the show has held up incredibly well. The writing is really good and every time I hear that opening theme I get chills.

    1. I wasn’t a big fan of North of 60 but it was definitely loved and successful. Not sure why no one suggested it for their big list.

      1. Can you explain to me the inclusion of Motive though? I think that’s what bugs me the most. The article made a point in saying they weren’t including most current shows because it’s difficult to judge lasting impact yet that show made the list. I like to criticize critics who look down on sci-fi yet I think you could fairly criticize me for looking down on procedurals.

        1. Sorry, I can’t explain – I agree it seems too recent and too much a part of a long line of cop procedurals to be truly influential. I had nothing to do with that part of it so all I can say is they had asked for input from readers, but I’m not sure how it came together in terms of what to add. You could ask though: http://reelwest.com/contact

  2. Gotta go with Stargate SG-1. 10 years, 2 spin-offs and a second huge hit for Richard Dean Anderson, as well as a great supporting cast. Action, comedy, and even a bit of moving drama at times.

    1. I never saw the Stargates (I know, I know – not my genre) but their influence on the Vancouver industry in particular is undeniable.

      1. I missed out on the Stargates too. I wasn’t really aware of them until well into the franchise and by then I felt it was too late to try them. If they ever show up on Netflix I’d be game.

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